MISS BALA: The War on Drugs As Seen By A Beauty Queen

A look back at Gerardo Naranjo’s original MISS BALA.

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Flying in under the radar at the Cannes 2011, Miss Bala quickly started to buzz. Made by a mostly unknown filmmaker with an unknown cast, the movie gripped with its mix of artificial glamour and gritty violence. The film itself seemed to present two parallel narratives of lifting yourself out of poverty and degradation: beauty and violence. In particular, it showcases the experiences of young women, who are especially limited in their upward mobility within Mexico at the time. Inspired by the real story of a beauty queen implicated in the cartels, director Naranjo crafted a tense thriller about violence and crime in Mexico.

Miss Bala leans heavily on naturalism. While unmistakably a fiction film in story and development, the filmmaking lends to a quieter sort of reality. Using natural light, long takes and a kind of burned ember colour scheme, the film feels rooted in the lived-in experiences of the characters. The camera serves as a participant in this world. It is frantic and intimate, bringing us directly into the action. As much as it strips away the glamour from gang reality violence, it does the same to the beauty world. Naranjo never revels in the kitsch of beauty pageants, allowing his characters quiet dignity in their labour and ambitions.

The drama of the film does not come from impossible dreams or ego, but rather how the simplest tasks are mountains with the cartels in the background. It is not a simple matter of staying in your lane because the criminality has slowly infected all aspects of life. This is not a film about asking for the world as much as it is about finding enough peace to survive. Even before Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) accidentally witnesses a gang crime, there is an undercurrent of caution that runs through everything.

Laura’s life is not a matter of avoiding danger, but delaying it. A beauty pageant win might have meant upward mobility for her and her family, but shortly after witnessing a crime, she is so shaken she misses an important meeting. Things go from bad to worse as Laura and her family are terrorized, blackmailed and forced to work for the cartel.

With all the drama of becoming implicated into the drug trade, the film is rife with tension and anxiety. Whatever Laura’s choices, she only seems to be pulled deeper into the world she has been longing to escape. Yet, unlike most stories about ordinary people drawn into extraordinary circumstances, Laura’s descent is neither random nor unpredictable. What we accepted as a normal state of affairs at the beginning of the film was merely a smokescreen for a much darker underbelly.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Miss Bala is how quickly we acclimate to new levels of “normal.” As soon as a set of circumstances change, we often naturally adapt in order to survive, but that often also means distancing yourself from your dreams, comforts and even family. Even if you can regain a sense of equilibrium and somehow remove yourself from this new normal, you rarely find yourself back where you started. Often you end up fighting to regain the small amount of status and mobility you once had, which wasn’t that great to begin with.

The film was a springboard for director Gerardo Naranjo’s career. He has since directed episodes for The Bridge, Fear the Walking Dead, and most notably, three episodes of Narcos. He also has an upcoming film called Viena and the Fantomes, a musical road-trip movie set in the 1980s. The movie has been shopped around since the 2016 Sundance market but does not seem to have a set release date as of yet.

With the release of the American remake of Miss Bala starring Gina Rodriguez this week, it is worth going back and surveying the great film that inspired it. Miss Bala, directed by Gerardo Naranjo, was a fantastic and horrifying portrait of impossible choices and circumstances, a look at an environment where characters have little to gain and everything to lose.